In a time when politicians and advertisers have devalued the word 'historic' to another piece of hyperbole, 15 February looks set to reclaim it with full force.
On that day hundreds of thousands of people will protest in London against war on Iraq. As if potentially the largest demonstration in British history was not remarkable enough, it takes place as part of an international day of action encompassing millions of protesters in 57 cities as we go to press.
The scale of the mobilisation has forced the media to acknowledge 15 February in a way that it has not done for a demonstration in years. This has included a Guardian leader column and an active campaign and petition by the 'Daily Mirror'.
Part of the coverage has centred on an outrageous attempt, supposedly by the Royal Parks Agency but supported by New Labour culture secretary Tessa Jowell, to ban the march from rallying in Hyde Park. Obviously aware of its huge size, which has necessitated two assembly points (at Embankment and Gower Street), Jowell used maintaining the state of the grass as a transparent excuse for maintaining the illusion of public assent. But the resultant anger put her in 'a no-win situation', as she is reported to have admitted. Even readers of the right wing London tabloid the 'Evening Standard' agreed, with 76 percent saying the rally should go ahead in Hyde Park.
A Stop the War Coalition spokesperson told 'Socialist Review' 'We'd like to thank Ms Jowell for attracting so much publicity regarding the demonstration. It's generated so many people writing in absolutely disgusted about the decision, including Labour Party members. Ms Jowell's own ward members petitioned her saying "Let the march carry on in Hyde Park".' The attempt sits uneasily with New Labour's modernisation rhetoric, as it replays 19th century battles by the Duke of Wellington to keep Hyde Park 'clear from mobs'. Both in 1855 and 1867 such decrees were overcome by sheer weight of numbers, and the anti-war movement can consider itself part of a proud tradition of fighting for the freedom of assembly and protest.
A similar struggle is taking place in New York, where an attempt to ban the anti-war protest entirely is also being vigorously challenged. The symbolic importance of the venue is obvious--the events of 11 September 2001 are still being used, albeit increasingly ineffectually, as a blunt instrument against opposition to this totally unrelated conflict. A massive turnout against war in New York will help to bury that manipulative lie once and for all.
The initiative for the international day of action began at the European Social Forum last November, where continental protests were coordinated. The idea was taken up by activists all around the world, with protests planned in cities as diverse as Bangkok and Belfast, Athens and Osaka, Seoul and Sao Paulo, Ramallah and Reykjavik, Glasgow and Geelong. One of the key tools for this co-ordination has been the Cairo Declaration, the anti-imperialist statement drawn up by Egyptian activists which was republished in last month's Socialist Review. Despite very real fears of repression, Cairo will also be the scene of an impressive anti-war protest on 15 February.
Anti-war meetings in towns, cities and villages throughout this country have tapped extraordinary support, with hundreds overflowing from meetings in Plymouth, Lewisham and St Albans, to name just three examples. Local Stop the War groups have sprung up in hundreds of areas, including Llanelli, Ludlow, Dorset and Daventry. All are throwing themselves into mass leafleting, postering, lobbies and protests to build the movement up to and after 15 February.
The impact of this movement cannot be exaggerated. If the huge level of support it enjoys is translated into the kind of mobilisations that are possible we can make this Blair's poll tax. The military power of the US and Britain is daunting. But our rulers are equally anxious about the power of collective action. The Motherwell train drivers who refused to move military equipment have given us a glimpse of that potential. Saturday 15 February 2003 will truly be a date to remember. With no fear of exaggeration we can say it will be the date the anti-war movement makes history.